The Labour Armies

The Transition to
Universal Labour Service [1]

In Connection with the Militia System

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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1. Socialist economy presupposes a general plan that embraces the entire territory, with all its natural resources, means of production and live human powers, which resources and forces of every kind the proletariat exploits, within the limits of the area covered by the state, just as fully as any individual entrepreneur endeavours to exploit the forces and resources at his command in his factory or his agricultural estate.

2. The continuity and completeness of the production process must be sustained and ensured by universal labour service, under which every able-bodied citizen, within certain age limits, is obliged to devote a certain part of his time to one branch or another of the production process.

3. Complete and fully efficient allocation of living labour power between agriculture, manufacturing industry and transport, and also between the different branches of agriculture and manufacturing industry, can be achieved only gradually, through economic experience in satisfying the demands of society, by organising labour in a planned way through increasingly precise recording of labour power, its mobilisation and application.

4. Until universal labour service has become normal, having become consolidated by habit into something unquestioned and irrevocable for everyone (which development will be brought about through education, both social and scholastic, and will find full expression only in the next generation) – until then, for a considerable time yet, the transition to the regime of universal labour service must inevitably be maintained by measures of a coercive character, that is, in the last analysis, by the armed force of the proletarian state. [2]

5. It is an elementary condition for any further economic development that the workers in manufacturing industry and transport and the urban population generally, be ensured a supply of necessary foodstuffs. Until manufacturing industry has been revived to a sufficient extent, and until a system of natural and mutually advantageous products exchange has been established between manufacturing industry and agriculture, the extraction of foodstuffs from the countryside will naturally depend on payment by the well-to-do sections of the peasantry of a tax in kind, the correct imposition of which can be ensured only by the coercive power of the state.

6. It is out of the question for an immediate leap to be made from the present situation of maximum ruin of productive forces and economic chaos, in which fragments from the past are combined with rudiments of the future, into a finished, centralised economy on a country-wide scale. There must inevitably be a protracted period during which efforts from above to centralise the economy on new social foundations will be supplemented by attempts and strivings to resuscitate local economic centres through the forces and resources of neighbouring areas.

7. The state power of the proletariat must take care not only to avoid stifling local initiative in the name of a schematic state economic plan but also, and on the contrary, to give support in every way to local initiative, to sustain it with technical ideas and material aid, supplying the necessary correctives and modifying its own country-wide plan in accordance with the tempo and scale of the development of individual economic centres.

8. It follows that universal labour service can in no case be understood as impersonal labour service by which certain age-groups are fully mobilised and allocated in accordance with a schematic economic plan, as is done by any government, including the Soviet Government, where military service is concerned. On the contrary, the task consists in finding a fulcrum for labour service in local and regional labour connections, habits and customs, basing labour service on certain territorial and production districts, defined on the basis of natural-historical conditions and those determined by production and social life.

9. These territorial-economic districts must form the basis both of the Soviet territorial-administrative system (region, province, uyezd, volost) and of the local military organs (commissariats), in the course of the gradual transition from the standing army to the militia.

10. The significance of the militia system lies in its bringing the army close, territorially and in terms of everyday life, to the economic process, so that the live human forces of particular economic areas are at the same time the live human forces of particular military units.

11. Registration of the population for military service must be combined with registration for labour service, so that the existing apparatus of the War Department (the local military commissariats), appropriately modified and constantly improved, may serve as the apparatus for mass conscription of labour.

12. When a particular unit of the Red Army is demobilised, its best cadres must be distributed in the most expedient way, that is, the way best adapted to local conditions of productive life, so as thereby to provide a ready-made apparatus for administering the units of the militia. The cadres of regiments, brigades and divisions, assigned to the above mentioned territorial and production districts and their subdivisions, will perform the work of universal military training of the workers and those peasants who do not exploit the labour of others, in accordance with a programme that will fully ensure the fighting capacity of the militia army.

13. The cadres of the militia must be gradually renewed, as regards their personal composition, so as to ensure the closest connection with the economic life of a given area, as a result of which the cadres of a division stationed in a territory which, for example, includes a mine, with the rural periphery adjacent thereto, will consist of the best elements of the local proletariat.

14. In order to achieve this renewal of cadres, command courses must be distributed territorially in accordance with the economic and militia districts, and the best representatives of the local workers and peasants must be put through these courses.

15. The transition to the militia system must necessarily be gradual, so that the change-over in the military system does not deprive the Soviet Republic for a single day of the necessary power of defence. For this purpose, a certain number of divisions must be retained from the present Red Army, and stationed in the most important or most threatened directions. The older age-groups and, in general, the longest serving Red Army men, can be discharged from the divisions fairly quickly and replaced by the 1901 class of conscripts.

16. Thus, for the task of introducing the food tax and labour service, the state must and will have at its disposal in the transition period a certain number of the most experienced, reliable and disciplined units, consisting predominantly of proletarians.

17. The next task in the sphere of economic construction is the compiling of a ‘small’ production plan, that is, one designed for the immediate future and taking as the point of departure for its calculations the most urgent needs and possibilities of production.

18. This plan must, above all, include precise requirements of labour-power for the coal and iron mines, the peat and shale deposits, the most important factories and the state farms.

19. In the armies, a registration of the Red Army men by trades must at one be carried out, so that, when they are demobilised, the most highly skilled elements may at once be allocated appropriately in accordance with the ‘small’ economic plan.

20. As regards unskilled labour-power, this must be secured both by conscripting those age-groups not included in the Red Army and by early release from the army of recentlymobilised men on condition that they work for a certain period in enterprises close to their homes.

21. A commission must at once be set up, consisting of the most responsible workers in the Supreme Economic Council, with extensive involvement of the relevant specialists and statisticians, to draw up a first rough draft of a scheme for the mobilisation of labour, corresponding to the ‘small’ production plan for the period immediately ahead.

22. The aforesaid plan must be handed over to the War Department so that it may take decisions, first, regarding the use of the methods and apparatus of army mobilisation for the purpose of the mobilisation of labour, and, secondly, regarding adaptation of the system of territorial-militia districts to the territorial-production districts.

23. The final elaboration of the system of labour service must be the task of an inter-departmental commission of representatives of the Supreme Economic Council, the War Department, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture, Food and Labour, and the Central Trade Union Council. 24. Proceeding from all the above, I propose that the Central Committee assign the tasks resulting from these theses to the appropriate departments, and in the first place to the Supreme Economic Council and the People’s Commissariat for Military Affairs.

December 16, 1919, Moscow


1. In connection with the complete liquidation of the Eastern front and the rout of Denikin, labour armies were formed from the army units which had been freed from immediate military tasks. Our position on the Western front remained unclear, and fairly strong units of Denikin’s army continued to exist in Caucasia and in the Crirnea. These circumstances prevented us from being able to undertake in January-February 1920 the demobilisation and reduction of the army. A serious crisis, principally affecting fuel, for the provision of which the organised application of a considerable quantity of labour power was needed, made it necessary to confront the problem of temporarily utilising the free units of the Red Army on the labour front. The first army to be transformed was the 3rd Army of the Eastern front (in the northern Urals), which was renamed the 1st Labour Army. Its basic tasks were to collect foodstuffs and transport them to the nearest stations, to procure fuel, and, finally, to help the local peasantry during the season of work in the fields. In order to restore the ruined sectors of the South-Eastern Railway, which was very important for transporting oil from Grozny, the Second Army was transferred there under the new name of the Railway Labour Army. The 7th Army, defending the approaches to Petrograd, was assigned labour tasks in the digging of peat. Finally, at the same time, the Ukrainian Labour Army began work, with as its main task the production of coal in the Donbas. Substantial use for improving transport was made of the republic’s Reserve Army. The large proportion of auxiliary personnel and the comparatively low productivity of labour gradually declined, and, in fact, the labour armies played a role of no small importance in the initial stages of the restoration of our shattered economy. The Red Army’s work on the labour front was cut short in April 1920 by the Polish offensive.

The speeches and articles that follow relate to this brief period between January and April 1920. (For the overall situation in the RSFSR on March 15, 1920, see Map. No.1 [NOTE: THIS MAP IS 250k IN SIZE])

2. Addressing the 3rd All-Russia Congress of Economic Councils on January 25, 1920 on the subject of the labour armies, Trotsky said: ‘This experiment is of the most vital moral and material importance. We cannot mobilise the peasants by means of trade unions, and the trade unions themselves do not possess any means of laying hold of millions of peasants. They can best be mobilised on a military footing. Their labour formations will have to be organised on a military model – labour platoons, labour companies, labour battalions, disciplined as required, for we shall have to deal with masses which have not passed through trade union training.’

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Last updated on: 27.12.2006